As soon as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced the Dallas Cowboys’ intentions to draft Ohio State Buckeyes Running Back Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick, the projections for his rookie season numbers began.
Fans, analysts, and writers alike all began predicting incredible feats for Zeke’s rookie year. We heard it all from 2,000 yards to being a lock for Rookie of the Year. It was almost impossible to temper our excitement and expectations.
But, without reeling in our expectations a bit is it possible we are setting Zeke up for failure before he even takes a snap as a Cowboy?
Listen, there is no question that Ezekiel Elliott is the front runner for Offensive Rookie of the Year, and I also think there is no question he is poised to have a fantastic rookie season, but do we need to define what “fantastic” will really be?
Immediately we want to think he will surpass DeMarco Murray’s 2014 mark of 1,845 yards and lead the league in rushing. He’s a better back than Murray, so why shouldn’t he?
There is no doubt in our minds he will eclipse Darren McFadden’s 1,089 yards from a season ago. Once again, he is a much better back than McFadden, so why shouldn’t he?
The answer may very well be as simple as, “because he’s a rookie.”
I am a firm believer that in order to know where you’re going, you need to know where you’ve been. Or in this case, it is important to know how other highly touted running backs have faired during their rookie seasons.
Here is a list of each running back drafted in the top ten of their respective draft over the past decade, and how they faired during their rookie campaign.
So, since 2006 there have been six running backs taken in the top 10 of the draft. The average rushing totals for their rookie season are 790 yards on 179 carries.
I think we can all agree that if those are Zeke’s totals for 2016, the season will end in disappointment both for the Cowboys and for Elliott. Luckily, I don’t think average stats of six distinct backs tell much of a story.
As a prospective back, Elliott compares most favorably to the likes of Todd Gurley and Adrian Peterson, who each won Offensive Rookie of the Year and rushed for over 1,000 yards during their rookie seasons.
The problem then lies within the numbers of these particular seasons. If Ezekiel Elliott has an identical year to Adrian Peterson, he will rush for only 252 more yards than Darren McFadden did a season ago. He would also do so while presumably starting five more games than McFadden did in 2015.
Cowboys’ fans may not love that. They may even view these type of numbers as lackluster, due to the incredible expectations which have been set.
This is why some believe we need to set realistic expectations for what Ezekiel Elliott can do in 2016. I usually don’t love Pro Football Focus, but their projection for Elliott fits perfectly into the historical context of early first round running backs.
Ezekiel Elliott 2016 projection: 273 carries, 1168 yards, 9 TDs. 36 catches, 380 yards, 2 TDs. #RB1
No, it would not be a dramatic improvement from what the Cowboys got out of McFadden a season ago, but his yardage should come with more meaning and impact than McFadden’s did.
And, like I stated earlier, it would fit perfectly into the historical context of good rookie seasons for running backs.
The difference that comes with projecting Zeke is that his situation is not similar to any of those other backs.
In fact, I believe that Zeke has a chance to put up better numbers than all of the players listed in the chart. He will, hopefully, appear in more games than Gurley, and he will be playing behind a better offensive line and with a more explosive offense than Peterson.
Outside of Reggie Bush, Zeke will be able to contribute as a receiver out of the backfield much more than each of the previous top 10 backs did, and this gives him an edge in his projected impact as well.
His ability to pass block also guarantees he will play more snaps than some of the other rookies have, giving him more opportunities to make his impact felt on Sundays.
These low rushing totals for rookies are skewed partially due to the teams that the players were drafted to play for. When you’re taken in the top 10 of any draft, you are usually not joining an offense that contributed three offensive linemen to the Pro Bowl a season ago. Also, you are usually not joining an offense with a top tier receiver or a high caliber quarterback.
Ezekiel Elliott is. And it is for these reasons, that the past rushing totals of rookie running backs and the historical context of what to expect from Zeke in 2016 are flawed.
The Cowboys’ situation is different from those past teams, and their new running back is much different than those past backs. Expect big things from Elliott in 2016.